Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The "Basics"

By Brian A. Comer
It seems appropriate that a first entry about products liability law in South Carolina would include "the basics", i.e., the legal theories that can serve as a basis for a products liability claim.
A person can bring a products liability claim based on negligence, strict liability in tort, and/or breach of warranty. Small v. Pioneer Mach., Inc., 329 S.C. 448, 494 S.E.2d 835 (Ct. App.1997); Bragg v. Hi-Ranger, Inc., 319 S.C. 531, 462 S.E.2d 321 (Ct. App.1995). "Strict liability and negligence are not mutually exclusive theories of recovery; that is, an injury may give rise to claims that can be established either under principles of strict liability or negligence, and failure to prove one theory does not preclude proving the other." Bragg, 319 S.C. at 539, 462 S.E.2d at 326.
Regardless of the theory that serves as a basis for recovery, a plaintiff must establish three elements in a South Carolina products liability claim: (1) the plaintiff was injured by the product; (2) the injury occurred because the product was in a defective condition, unreasonably dangerous to the user; and (3) the product, at the time of the accident, was in essentially the same condition as when it left the hands of the defendant. Rife v. Hitachi Const. Mach. Co., Ltd., 363 S.C. 209, 215, 609 S.E.2d 565, 568 (Ct. App. 2005); Bragg, 319 S.C. at 539, 462 S.E.2d at 326. In addition to the above, in a negligence action "the plaintiff bears the additional burden of demonstrating the defendant (seller or manufacturer) failed to exercise due care in some respect, and, unlike strict liability, the focus is on the conduct of the seller or manufacturer, and liability is determined according to fault." Bragg, 319 S.C. at 539, 462 S.E.2d at 326. As stated by another court, the plaintiff must also prove "that the manufacturer breached its duty to exercise reasonable care to adopt a safe design." Rife, 363 S.C at 215, 609 S.E.2d at 569.
There is no statute of limitations specific to products liability actions in South Carolina. Instead, the applicable statute of limitations is the same as any personal injury, wrongful death, or property damage statute. For these actions, the limitations is six years for causes of action that accrue prior to April 5, 1988, and three years for causes of action arising on or after April 5, 1988. See S.C. Code Ann. §§ 15-3-530, 15-3-535, and 15-3-545. The statue of limitations for breach of warranty actions is six years. Id. at § 36-2-725. With the exception of actions brought as medical malpractice actions, all action "must be commenced within three years after the person knew or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known that he had a cause of action." S.C. Code Ann. 15-3-535. In other words, the date of discovery is significant for determining when the statute of limitations begins to run.
These are "the basics," and my hope is to focus on each of them in greater detail in subsequent postings.
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